Undemocratic Republicans

We’re not a democracy. — Tweet of Senator Mike Lee, Utah Republican, October 7, 2010.

Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee

Senator Lee’s screed against democracy channeled long-standing right-wing tropes claiming the United States is not a democracy but a constitutional republic. The impetus for this view of the American social compact derives from controversies surrounding the nation’s entry into World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the defense of democracy central to persuading the American public of the necessity of intervening in the European war. Opponents of U.S. intervention pushed back by arguing that the nation was not a democracy, but a republic.

Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society

The concept became a right-wing slogan in the 1960s when Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, used it in a speech entitled, “Republics and Democracies.” Welch claimed that in a democracy, “There is a centralization of governmental power in a simple majority. And that, visibly, is the system of government which the enemies of our republic are seeking to impose on us today.” Welch’s ideas never completely disappeared, and his cramped view of the American democratic experiment found expression earlier this year in a lengthy report, “America is a Republic, Not a Democracy,” issued by The Heritage Foundation. 

I suspect Lee’s tweet was not part of a theoretical exercise about the nature of American government. Much ink can be, and has been, spilled over the Founders’ distrust of democracy (hence the Senate and the Electoral College as checks on the popular will), and the widespread 18th-century conviction that America — as a burgeoning continental empire — was simply too large to emulate ancient Athens as a direct democracy. Besides, though the free citizens of Athens gathered in assemblies, the city-state of the classical era teetered between tyranny and democracy during the Peloponnesian War — as Thucydides describes — and it practiced slavery.

No, Lee had a particular point in mind, no doubt. He, like many Republicans, is worried, specifically, about this election in which the people appear poised to express their will and throw Republicans out of the White House and the Senate. More generally, his concern is about current demographic trends that are likely to make the Republican Party a permanent minority in coming years. 

The Proud Boys

The immediate concern for Republicans is November 3, and the Trump administration, aided by many sycophantic Republicans, has been softening the country for a repudiation of democracy. Trump has been doing this by refusing to say if he will honor the results of the election — if he loses — and peacefully cede power to his successor and by priming some of his more violence-ready followers to take matters into their own hands (“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by”). The vehicle for all this is Trump’s frequent attacks on the legitimacy of mail-in balloting, a form of voting likely to be employed in disproportionate numbers by Democrats trying to stay safe during the pandemic. In Trump’s world, mailed ballots constitute “massive fraud.”

Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott

If Republicans succeed, millions of Americans will lose their vote this year through challenges to mail-in ballots and through transparent attempts to suppress the vote, such as the decree by Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott to limit drop-off locations for mail-in ballots to one per county. Abbott’s voter suppression gambit is in the courts now, but if it is approved it would mean that Harris County — a Democratic stronghold that includes the city of Houston and which is huge in size and population — would have only one drop box to serve more than four-million people.

Voter suppression has been a Republican ploy for decades. Republicans have imposed restrictive voter-ID requirements, limited times for registering to vote and actually voting, and closed voting places in areas with large numbers of minorities. Republicans keenly are aware that as the proportion of minorities and the young increase among eligible voters, Republican chances of retaining political influence diminish. Suppressing the vote is a tactic to delay the inevitable day when the GOP will no longer be an effective nationwide political organization.

Supreme Court justice-nominee Amy Coney Barrett with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Packing the Supreme Court is another Republican attempt to thwart the popular will. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, abused the system by withholding hearings on President Barack Obama’s federal judgeship nominees. Then, once Trump was elected, McConnell rushed to place as many conservative judges on the federal courts as possible as a way to curb the progressivism of emerging Democratic majorities. McConnell’s grotesque power play to deny President Barack Obama a Supreme Court appointment nine months before an election while pushing the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the high court after millions of Americans have already voted is the best known example of Republican court packing. The motive is obvious: Republicans are likely to lose the White House and Congress for decades to come, but if young conservatives are put on the bench, they will be in a position to overturn progressive legislation. At least, that is the thinking.

The Supreme Court in the 1930s, when FDR attempt to add additional justices

Democratic threats to “pack the court” are a response to Republican attempts to make the Supreme Court the last bastion of conservatism. Court packing has an odious reputation, but there is nothing in the Constitution fixing the number of justices at nine. True, the last serious attempt to increase the number of justices — by Roosevelt in the 1930s because of judicial opposition to the New Deal — is viewed as a political failure. But, while the number of justices remained at nine, what is often forgotten is that in the midst of the court-packing fight, the Court veered to the left and began to approve New Deal welfare and regulatory legislation. Historians argue about cause-and-effect in the famous “switch in time that saved nine,” but the precedent is clear. Perhaps, the looming Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act will be a harbinger of both how conservative the court will be and what Democrats will do to counter a possible turn to the right.

Voter suppression and jamming conservatives on the courts are Republican attempts to undermine American democracy. Labelling the United States a republic, rather than a democracy is an exercise in political theory not likely to impress many Americans. But, suppressing the vote and packing the courts with conservatives does affect many citizens, which is why all indications are that record numbers of Americans are likely to vote this year against the undemocratic tendencies of the Republican Party.

Posted October 13, 2020

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